Southern Barbarism by Frederick Douglass
Speech on the occasion of the Twenty-Fourth Anniversary of Emancipation in the District of Columbia, Washington, D.C., April 16, 1886
… Fellow-citizens, while I gratefully remember the important services of the Republican party in emancipating and enfranchising the colored people of the United States, I do not forget that the work of that party is most sadly incomplete. We are yet, as a people, only half free. The promise of liberty remains unfulfilled. We stand to-day only in the twilight of American liberty. The sunbeams of perfect day are still behind the mountains, and the mission of the Republican party will not be ended until the persons, the property, and the ballot of the colored man, shall be as well protected in every State of the American Union as are such rights in the case of the white man. The Republican party is not perfect. It is cautious even to the point of timidity; but it is, nevertheless, the best political force and friend we have.
And now I return to the point at which I commenced these remarks. I have spoken to you of the adoption of the Constitution of the United States and of the national progress and prosperity under that instrument; I have called your attention to the noble objects announced in the preamble of the Constitution. I did not stop then and there to inquire how far those objects, so solemnly proclaimed to the world, and so often sworn to, have been attained, or to point out how far they have been practically disregarded and abandoned by the Government ordained to practically carry them out. I now undertake to say that neither the Constitution of 1789, nor the Constitution as amended since the war, is the law of the land. That Constitution has been slain in the house of its friends. So far as the colored people of the country are concerned, the Constitution is but a stupendous sham, a rope of sand, a Dead Sea apple, fair without and foul within, keeping the promise to the eye and breaking it to the heart. The Federal Government, so far as we are concerned, has abdicated its functions and abandoned the objects for which the Constitution was framed and adopted, and for this I arraign it at the bar of public opinion, both of our country and that of the civilized world.
I am here to tell the truth, and to tell it without fear or favor, and the truth is that neither the Republican party nor the Democratic party has yet complied with the solemn oath, taken by their respective representatives, to support the Constitution, and execute the laws enacted under its provisions. They have promised us law, and abandoned us to anarchy; they have promised protection, and given us violence; they have promised us fish, and given us a serpent. A vital and fundamental object which they have sworn to realize to the best of their ability, is the establishment of justice. This is one of the six fundamental objects for which the Constitution was ordained; but when, where, and how has any attempt been made by the Federal Government to enforce or establish justice in any one of the late slave-holding States? Has any one of our Republican Presidents, since Grant, earnestly endeavored to establish justice in the South? According to the highest legal authorities, justice is the perpetual disposition to secure to every man, by due process of law, protection to his person, his property and his political rights. “Due process of law” has a definite and legal meaning. It means the right to be tried in open court by a jury of one’s peers, and before an impartial judge. It means that the accused shall be brought face to face with his accusers; that he shall be allowed to call witnesses in his defence, and that he shall have the assistance of counsel; it means that, preceding his trial, he shall be safe in the custody of the Government, and that no harm shall come to him for any alleged offence till he is fairly tried, convicted, and sentenced by the court. This protection is given to the vilest white criminal in the land. He cannot be convicted while there is even a reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury as to his guilt. But to the colored man accused of crime in the Southern States, a different rule is almost everywhere applied. With him, to be accused is to be convicted. The court in which he is tried is a lynching mob. This mob takes the place of “due process of law,” of judge, jury, witness, and counsel. It does not come to ascertain the guilt or innocence of the accused, but to hang, shoot, stab, burn, or whip him to death. Neither courts, jails, nor marshals are allowed to protect him. Every day brings us tidings of these outrages. I will not stop to detail individual instances. Their name is legion. Everybody knows that what I say is true, and that no power is employed by the Government to prevent this lawless violence. Yet our chief magistrates and other officers, Democratic and Republican, continue to go through the solemn mockery, the empty form of swearing by the name of Almighty God that they will execute the laws and the Constitution; that they will establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and to our posterity.
Only a few weeks ago, at Carrolton Court-house, Mississippi, in the absence of all political excitement, while the Government of the nation, as well as the government of the Southern States, was safely in the hands of the Democratic party; when, there was no pending election, and no pretence of a fear of possible Negro supremacy, one hundred white citizens, on horseback, armed to the teeth, deliberately assembled and in cold blood opened a deadly fire upon a party of peaceable, unarmed colored men, killing eleven of them on the spot, and mortally wounding nine others, most of whom have since died. The sad thing is that, in the average American mind, horrors of this character have become so frequent since the slaveholding rebellion that they excite neither shame nor surprise; neither pity for the slain, nor indignation for the slayers. It is the old story verified:
"Vice is a monster of such frightful mien
That, to be hated, needs but to be seen;
But seen too oft, familiar with its face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.”
It is said that those who live on the banks of Niagara neither hear its thunder nor shudder at its overwhelming power. In any other country such a frightful crime as the Carrolton massacre — in any other country than this a scream would have gone up from all quarters of the land for the arrest and punishment of these cold-blooded murderers. But alas! nothing like this has happened here. We are used to the shedding of innocent blood, and the heart of this nation is torpid, if not dead, to the natural claims of justice and humanity where the victims are of the colored race. Where are the sworn ministers of the law? Where are the guardians of public justice?
Where are the defenders of the Constitution? What hand in House or Senate; what voice in court or Cabinet is uplifted to stay this tide of violence, blood, and barbarism? Neither governors, presidents, nor statesmen, have yet declared that these barbarities shall be stopped. On the contrary, they all confess themselves powerless to protect our class; and thus you and I and all of us are struck down, and bloody treason flourishes over us. In view of this confessed impotency of the Government and this apparent insensibility of the nation to the claims of humanity, do you ask me why I expend my time and breath in denouncing these wholesale murders when there is no seeming prospect of a favorable response? I answer in turn, how can you, how can any man with a heart in his breast do otherwise when, louder than the blood of Abel, the blood of his fellow-men cries from the ground?
"Shall tongues be mute when deeds are wrought
Which well might shame extremest hell?
Shall freeman lock the indignant thought?
Shall mercy’s bosom cease to swell?
Shall honor bleed, shall truth succumb,
Shall pen, and press, and soul be dumb?
By all around, above, below,
Be ours the indignant answer, No!”
In a former address, delivered on the occasion of this anniversary, I was at the pains of showing that much of the crime attributed to colored people, and for which they were held responsible, imprisoned, and murdered, was, in fact, committed by white men disguised as Negroes. I affirm that all presumptions in courts of law and in the community were against the, Negro, and that color was the safest disguise a white man could assume in which to commit crime; that all he had to do to commit the worst crimes with impunity was to blacken his face and take on the similitude of a Negro but even this disguise sometimes fails. Only a few days ago a Mr. J. H. Justice, an eminent citizen of Granger county, Tenn., attempted under this disguise to commit a cunningly devised robbery and have his offense fixed upon a Negro. All worked well till a bullet brought him to the ground and a little soap and water was applied to his face, when he was found to be no Negro at all, but a very respectable white citizen.
Dark, desperate, and forlorn as I have described the situation, the reality exceeds the description. In most of the Gulf States, and in some parts of the border States, I have sometimes thought that we should be about as well situated for the purposes of justice if there were no Constitution of the United States at all; as well off if there were no law or law-makers, no constables, no jails, no courts of justice, and we were left entirely without the pretence of legal protection, for we are now at the mercy of midnight raiders, assassins, and murderers, and we should only be in the same condition if these pretended safeguards were abandoned. They now only mock us. Other men are presumed to be innocent until they are proved guilty. We are presumed to be guilty until we are proved to be innocent.
The charge is often made that Negroes are by nature the criminal class of America; that they furnish a larger proportion of petty thieves than any other class. I admit the charge, but deny that nature, race, or color has anything to do with the fact. Any other race with the same antecedents and the same condition would show a similar thieving propensity.
The American people have this lesson to learn: That where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob, and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe. I deny that nature has made the Negro a thief or a burglar. Look at these black criminals, as they are brought into your police courts; view and study their faces, their forms, and their features, as I have done for years as Marshal of this District, and you will see that their antecedents are written all over them. Two hundred and fifty years of grinding slavery has done its work upon them. They stand before you to-day physically and mentally maimed and mutilated men. Many of their mothers and grandmothers were lashed to agony before their birth by cruel overseers, and the children have inherited in their faces the anguish and resentment felt by their parents. Many of these poor creatures have not been free long enough to outgrow the marks of the lash on their backs, and the deeper marks on their souls. No, no! It is not nature that has erred in making the Negro. That shame rests with slavery. It has twisted his limbs, deformed his body, flattened his feet, and distorted his features, and made him, though black, no longer comely. In infancy he slept on the cold clay floor of his cabin, with quick circulation on one side, and tardy circulation on the other. So that he has grown up unequal, unsymmetrical, and is no longer a vertical, well-rounded man, in body or in mind. Time, education, and training will restore him to natural proportions, for, though bruised and blasted, he is yet a man.
The school of the Negro since leaving slavery has not been much of an improvement on his former condition. Individuals of the race have here and there enjoyed large benefits from emancipation, and the result is seen in their conduct, but the mass have had their liberty coupled with hardships which tend strongly to keep them a dwarfed and miserable class. A man who labors ten hours a day with pickaxe, crowbar, and shovel, and has a family to support and house rent to pay, and receives for his work but a dollar a day, and what is worse still, he is deprived of labor a large part of his time by reason of sickness and the weather, in his poverty, easily falls before the temptation to steal and rob. Hungry men will eat. Desperate men will commit crime. Outraged men will seek revenge. It is said to be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. I have sometimes thought it harder still for a poor man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Man is so constituted that if he cannot get a living honestly, he will get it dishonestly. “Skin for skin,” as the devil said of Job. “All that a man hath will he give for his life.” Oppression makes even wise men mad and reckless; for illustration I pray look at East St. Louis.
In the Southern States to-day a landlord system is in operation which keeps the Negroes of that section in rags and wretchedness, almost to the point of starvation. As a rule, this system puts it out of the power of the Negro to own land. There is, to be sure, no law forbidding the selling of land to the colored people, but there is an understanding which has the full effect of law. That understanding is that the land must be kept in the hands of the old master class. The colored people can rent land, it is true, and many of them do rent many acres, and find themselves poorer at the end of the year than at the beginning, because they are charged more a year for rent per acre than the land would bring at auction sale. The landlord and tenant system of Ireland, which has conducted that country to the jaws of ruin, bad as it is, is not worse than that which prevails at this hour at the South, and yet the colored people of the South are constantly reproached for their poverty. They are asked to make bricks without straw. Their hands are tied, and they are asked to work. They are forced to be poor, and laughed at for their destitution.
I am speaking mainly to colored men to-night, but I want my words to find their way to the eyes, cars, heads and hearts of my white fellow-countrymen, hoping that some among them may be made to think, some hearts among them will be made to feel, and some of their number will be made to act. I appeal to our white fellow-countrymen. The power to protect is in their hands. This is and must be practically the white man’s government. He has the numbers and the intelligence to control and direct. To him belongs the responsibility of its honor or dishonor, its glory or its shame, its salvation or its ruin. If they can protect the rights of white men they can protect the rights of black men; if they can defend the rights of American citizens abroad they can defend them at home; if they can use the army to protect the rights of Chinamen, they can use the army to protect the rights of colored men. The only trouble is the will! the will! the will! Here, as elsewhere, “Where there is a will there is a way.”
I have now said not all that could be said but enough to indicate the relations at present existing between the white and colored people of this country, especially the relations subsisting between the two classes of the late slaveholding states. Time would fail me to trace this relation in all its ramifications; but that labor is neither required by this audience nor by the country. The condition of the emancipated class is known alike to ourselves and to the Government, to pulpit and press, and to both of the great political parties. These have only to do their duty and all will be well.
One use of this annual celebration is to keep the subject of our grievances before the people and government, and to urge both to do their respective parts in the happy solution of the race problem. The weapons of our warfare for equal rights are not carnal but simple truth, addressed to the hearts and sense of justice of the American people. If this fails we are lost. We have no armies or generals, no swords or cannons to enforce our claims, and do not want any.
We are often asked with an air of reproach by white men at the North: “Why don’t your people fight their way to the ballot-box?" The question adds insult to injury. Whom are are called upon to fight? They are the men who held this nation, with all its tremendous resources of men and money, at bay during four long and bloody years. Whom are we to fight? I answer, not a few midnight assassins, not the rabble mob, but trained armies, skilled generals of the Confederate army, and in the last resort we should have to meet the Federal army. Though that army cannot now be employed to defend the weak against the strong, means would certainly be found for its employment to protect the strong against the weak. In such a case insurrection would be madness.
He has shown this in his publicly spoken words in behalf of persecuted and murdered Chinamen; he should do the same for the persecuted and murdered black citizens of Mississippi. He could threaten the law-breakers and murderers of the West with the sword of the nation, why not the South? If it was right to protect and defend the Chinese, why not the Negro? If in the days of slavery the army could be used to hunt slaves, and suppress slave insurrections, why, in the days of liberty, may it not be used to enforce rights guaranteed by the Constitution? Alas! fellow-citizens, there is no right so neglected as the Negro’s right. There is no flesh so despised as the Negro’s flesh. There is no blood so cheap as the Negro’s blood. I have been saying these things to the American people for nearly fifty years. In the order of nature I cannot say them much longer; but, as was said by another, “though time himself should confront me, and shake his hoary locks at any persistence, I shall not cease while life is left me, and our wrongs are unredressed, to thus cry aloud and spare not.”
But, fellow-citizens, I do not despair, and no power that I know of can make me despair of the ultimate triumph of justice and liberty in this country. I have seen too many abuses outgrown, too many evils removed, too many moral and physical improvements made, to doubt that the wheels of progress will still roll on. We have but to toil and trust, throw away whiskey and tobacco, improve the opportunities that we have, put away all extravagance, learn to live within our means, lay up our earnings, educate our children, live industrious and virtuous lives, establish a character for sobriety, punctuality, and general uprightness, and we shall raise up powerful friends who shall stand by us in our struggle for an equal chance in the race of life. The white people of this country are asleep, but not dead. In other days we had a potent voice in the Senate which awoke the nation.
Note: I removed some parts for relevance reasons. If you want to read all of it, check below. Bold emphases are my own, as are links. Frederick was a smart dude but he didn’t use the internet.
Source: Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings p 696 [full text link]